Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Exiled couple in legal limbo after US ruling

Exiled couple in legal limbo after US ruling

Exiled couple in legal limbo after US ruling

An US federal appeals court has overturned an earlier ruling, confirming a Cambodian couple’s eligibility for political asylum in the United States despite the husband’s previous work at a Cambodian prison where inmates – mostly Khmer Rouge soldiers – were allegedly mistreated.

The Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco overturned a ruling it made on the case last August, saying that former Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) activist Pauline Im and his wife, Ngin Sethy, faced political persecution if they returned to Cambodia. An attempt on their lives was made in 2000.

The court also noted that Im’s brief employment as a guard at a Vietnamese-run prison during the early 1980s did not involve direct participation in the mistreatment of prisoners, an act which could have seen him deported.

“Im never beat any prisoner in his time as a prison guard. He did not decide who was imprisoned in the jail and he had no say in which prisoners were interrogated,” the court ruled in August. “Im was charged with unlocking the doors to prisoners’ cells based on instructions from superiors,” added.

The court on April 11 withdrew the August ruling in light of a similar asylum case involving a former prison guard from Eritrea, Daniel Negusie, who is alleged to have been directly involved in the abuse of prisoners.

The US Supreme Court is not expected hand down its verdict on Negusie’s case until June 2009, casting the Cambodian couple into temporary legal limbo.

The couple’s lawyer, Emmanuel Enyinwa criticized the court’s decision this month, saying the two cases were not comparable because Im, unlike Negusie, was unarmed and played no role in the interrogation or mistreatment of prisoners.

After working as a prison guard following the 1979 Vietnamese invasion that ousted the Khmer Rouge, Im briefly joined the anti-Vietnamese resistance and was jailed in 1983 for anti-government activities.

Following the Paris Peace Accords, he joined the Buddhist Liberal Democratic Party and ran as a candidate in the 1993 parliamentary elections.

After serving in the Ministry of Rural Development and the National Assembly, Im joined the opposition SRP in 2000.

The couple, who now live in Fresno, California, fled Cambodia after unknown assailants – thought by Im to be government agents – fired on their Phnom Penh home in July 2000.